The highest top of the Harz was an espionage station during the Cold War. The villages nearby are called Elend (Misery) and Sorge (Worries). We tried to find out why, and travelled to the top in style with the old steam train.
15.10.2017 - 15.10.2017
Postcard made by Alfred Hoppe (1906-1985) for the then East German company VEB Volkskunstverlag Reichenbach. We found no present owners of copyright. Courtesy website http://www.ddr-comics.de/ak.htm
For decades the Harz was less peaceful than it is now. It was divided by the Iron Curtain, the border between East and West. A broad restricted zone between two worlds: capitalism and communism, political blocks that were each other's worst enemies. The strip along the border was no-man's land. And of course both parties tried to spy on each other. The highest top of the Harz, the Brocken, was one of the Sovjet Block's listening stations. There were buildings in which the communists tried to listen into (and intercept) all radio communication from the West that could be important from a political or military perspective.
Nowadays, tourists can make a long hike to the top through the beautiful, forested nature. Or they can take the ancient steam train up there. When they arrive, the place may still look as mysterious as it used to be. The solid grim buildings are still there, often hidden on the fog, because the Brocken mountain top is hidden in the clouds a good part of the year.
In the morning we drove to the Brocken area. When we tried to find out from where we could take that old train, we looked at the map and noticed two villages with very strange names: Elend (which means Misery), and Sorge (which means Worries). We decided to find out the origin of these strange names, and then take the steam train from there. Both villages are actually located in the middle of beautiful nature, especially in autumn when the leaves start to color orange, red, yellow and brown. So, why these unhappy village names then?
- Sorge: The name "Sorge" does indeed mean Worries in today's German, as well as in the Ancient Central German language ("Sorga"). In the old days living in far and remote villages was not easy. Especially during winter the villages were sometimes very isolated for a long time, so that food supply depended totally on what the local people could preserve from their harvest season. Snow could make roads inaccessible for weeks, sometimes months. Therefore the people who lived there really had a lot of Worries of how to survive. Every year again.
- Elend: It would be easy to think that the name "Elend", which means Misery in modern German, has a similar background as its neighbor village Sorge, but this is not completely true. In a blog on German broadcaster SWF's website, Prof. Dr. Konrad Kunze, emeritus professor in German linguistics at the University of Freiburg, gives the answer. The name "Elend" comes from the ancient High-German term "alia landa", which meant something like "outside of the land". The term was used to describe isolated places that were out in the wastelands. So the name didn't have a direct relationship with the living conditions, but with the geographical position. However, it is easy to imagine that in cold winters Elend must have seen quite a bit of Misery.
- The times of hardship in Sorge and Elend were not limited to the very ancient times only. During the communist rule, both villages were inside the forbidden area, the "Strip of Death", and they were therefore no-go area for anyone except the military. If you see the very peaceful two villages now, connected with the outside world by very good roads and by (steam) train, it is hard to imagine how it must have been there long ago.
When we arrived in Elend, we saw literally nobody there. We parked our car next to the deserted railway station to find out if, and at what time a train would arrive to take us to the Brocken. Just when we looked for a time table, we heard a loud steam whistle from the woods and the heavy puffing sound of a steam locomotive. A minute later the train slowly rolled into the station. We asked the conductor about schedule, directions and ticket fare to the Brocken, and he said we had to change trains at the next station Drei-Annen-Hohne. The tickets we could buy from him, so we had to decide instantly. Our car was not even locked yet, but parked too far for the remote control key! Because the place looked peaceful enough and did not seem like a hot-spot for thieves, we decided to take the risk and got on board.
After a short and beautiful ride through the forest, the train rolled into the station of Drei-Annen-Hohne. It is where passengers change from one ancient train to another, so this is really a favorite spot for people who like old trains. Along the tracks we saw that many people, also non-passengers, were taking pictures.
Because we had to wait for half an hour, we bought some really good, tasty and steaming hot German Bratwursts with bread, and a few cans of beer, from a stand on the platform. This was very welcome because it started to get cold and a bit cloudy. It was a good thing that we did that also for a different reason, as we would find out later. (See also the practical tips at he bottom of this page.)
We got on the next train and after a while it started to move. Steam everywhere around and the smells, smoke and sounds that belong to a ride like this. We felt like we were half a century back in time. The first part of the journey went through dense forests, changing from spruce to pine woods as the train started to climb steeply. There were a few little tunnels on the way, carved out in the rocks. After about half an hour the forest got thinner and the landscape got more barren. The closer we were getting to the top of the Brocken, the thicker the fog.
On the top of the Brocken we could hardly see 50 meters ahead of us. The view, that seems to be fabulous from there, was none. Zero. Still we liked it because in the mist we could vaguely see the contours of a few grim, solid buildings, one with a dome, the other one more like a square tower. The mist made them look menacing, mysterious and hostile. So, this was where it all happened. This is where all sorts of secret operations were coordinated, radio communications were listened out, and from where the East Block kept a constant eye on its enemies in the West.
On apparently the highest point there is a monument and a heap of stones, with pointers showing the different directions. We found it sort of pointless, especially without the view.
It is not unjust to say that the Brocken may be a bit overrated. Apart from the strange atmosphere and knowing the history, we felt like the real attraction is in the trip to go up there, but not in actually being up there.
It was not only foggy, it was bloody cold too. We needed some hot soup or something. There is a restaurant, but really it is more like a canteen. The prices for food are ridiculous and the choice is very limited. We were happy that we had our lunch in the form of the Bratwurst down in the village, so all we ordered was an overpriced bowl of pea soup (which was so-so) and an equally overpriced cup of coffee (very bad) from the unfriendly and grumpy counter staff. These people were so grumpy that we started wondering if this was perhaps part of the entourage. Maybe this was meant to keep alive the image that people have about the Vopo's, the infamous East-German Volkspolizei? Later we discovered that most online reviews about this restaurant are very negative. And rightly so! We can suggest anyone to not waste any money at the top of the Brocken on food or drinks. It is much better to just buy something down in the village, and to bring it in your rucksack if you like.
Of course, we did not let this Cold War experience spoil our mood. When we were in the train back down the mountain, the sun started to shine again. We decided not to stay on the train all the way back, but to step off at the tiny station of Schierke, and hike from there through the forest down to Elend, where our car was. It was a very nice walk, steeply down through the forest where we enjoyed to see many different mushrooms (see WARNING at the bottom of this page!).
Fortunately, the car was still there and nothing had been stolen. Before driving back home we made a last stop in the historic, but very touristic town of Wernigerode, where we had a drink, and then it was time to drive back home.
- * The Brockenbahn steam train is part of a vast network of so-called narrow gauge railroad tracks through the entire Harz area, all the way as far as Quedlinburg to the East. The trains are operated, on a daily schedule, by the company HSB (link here). They operate the railways with steam locs and ancient diesel locs. This railway network is not only used by tourists, but local people commute on it also.
- The time table (in German) for the current year 2018 is here. The tariff (also 2018) is here. Consider to buy tickets well ahead of time, online, because in weekends and during the school holidays they may be fully sold out. Oh, we just noticed something. If you look for the price of group tickets, the English version of the page uses the word "graduation". However, they mean group size, it is definitely not limited to graduation parties
- Many people comment that a ticket with the trains to the Brocken mountain top is very expensive. This is true, but the ticket price is of course not only for some form of public transportation from A to B; it is also for covering the extreme costs of maintaining and restoring the old locomotives, wagons, stations as well as the old railroad network. Much of that work is done by volunteers, but quite a bit of material and spare parts must be specially recreated. This obviously costs lots of money. A railway company like this could never survive from charging "standard" ticket prices. So we think it is fair to keep this in mind, and we were confirmed in this by seeing how enthusiastic the volunteers tell people about their hobby.
- If you don't want to pay the jackpot, an alternative idea may be to take the steam train on some other stretches (not up the Brocken, which is the most expensive). You can also hike up and down the mountain, which will take you a full day and burns off loads of calories, but which is very nice. It saves you a lot of money, and then you can still have the steam train experience through a beautiful area with forest, hills, nice villages and charming old railway stations.
- In our modest opinion, you may want to give the eateries on top of the Brocken mountain a miss. Not only because of the prices, but also because of the limited choice and the attitude of the staff. We believe that as long as they don't change their policies (and staff, probably) they are a waste of money, unless you fancy a type of service that may have been common in the East Block during the Cold War. Our advice: before you take the train (or the hike) up the mountain, stock up with food and drinks and bring these with you.
- WARNING: We mentioned something about mushrooms in the forest. In the weekends some local people will go into the forest and collect edible mushrooms. Their families have done that since centuries and they know what they are doing. YOU ALMOST CERTAINLY DON'T KNOW THIS, AND EDIBLE MUSHROOMS CAN BE CONFUSED VERY EASILY WITH LETHALLY POISONOUS MUSHROOMS. EATING THOSE CAN KILL YOU OR WILL MAKE YOU VERY SICK. Don't take this risk, EVER, unless you are together with an expert. Otherwise, don't even touch them, just buy them in the veggie shop or eat them in a restaurant!